Hercules unchained

Many mistakes were made the day a 340-pound gorilla got loose at the Dallas Zoo. One keeper almost paid for them with her life. But should the deputy zoo director have paid for them with his career?

McClurg instructed Froelich to clean the two bedrooms on the south end of the building while she took care of the ones on the north end. Froelich wheeled two trash bins into the main hallway that bisects the building. He opened the hallway's inside double doors and locked the exit doors.

The first thing Froelich did before he began cleaning the bedrooms was to check the access doors to the overhead chutes to make sure the gorillas could not get back into the bedroom area from the community rooms. Depending on the animal, certain chutes are left open at night to give the gorillas more room to roam. When he was certain he was safe, Froelich removed the hay from both bedrooms then began hosing down the floors.

OOO-OOO-OO-OOO-OO.
Froelich heard a commotion coming from the south community room. Jabari and Patrick were screaming. The noise lasted for about five seconds. Froelich figured the boys were just roughhousing and went back to washing the bedrooms. When the screaming started again and didn't stop, Froelich grew alarmed and went to investigate. He turned onto the main hallway and on his right saw the boys standing in the community room with their hands clinging to the wire mesh. They were looking at something and screeching loudly, the sounds ricocheting off the bare concrete walls.

Froelich walked about four feet down the hall and stopped. Just 10 feet in front of him in the main hallway stood Hercules, resting on all fours, his long, massive arms spread out before him, his knuckles grazing the floor. Hercules turned and glared at Froelich. He lunged at him, then suddenly stopped. It was a bluff charge.

Unknown to Froelich, Hercules had climbed from the north community room through an open door in the overhead chute that emptied into one of the north bedrooms. At the time, McClurg was in a side hallway near the north bedrooms and spotted Hercules. (See "The keeper's tale," page 32.) She ran and tried to shut the bedroom door before Hercules had access to keeper hallways and the entire building. But Hercules beat her to the door. She turned and tried to run, but Hercules caught her by the leg. He pulled off her boot and bit deeply into her leg, beginning what McClurg says was a 40-minute ordeal. Then he bounded into the main hallway, where he came face-to-face with Froelich.

Froelich froze and instantly figured his options. He quickly scanned the area for McClurg. He could not hear or see her, but Hercules' 340-pound bulk was obscuring the view of the hallway beyond him. Froelich knew he had to save himself. He thought about heading back into the south bedrooms, but ruled it out because he didn't have a key to lock the doors behind him. He thought about closing and locking the hallway doors that stood between him and Hercules, but that would mean walking toward the gorilla, which might have antagonized him. Plus, he didn't think he had enough time to latch the doors, and he had no key to secure them. Another option was to turn on his heels and escape out of the building's south doors. But it was simply too far to run, and there was no way he could beat Hercules in a footrace. Even if he could have outrun him, he might have lured Hercules outside, where that many more people would be vulnerable.

All of this went through his mind in a flash. He took the best option available; he darted into the tech room, a glassed-in keeper work and rest area almost directly to his right. He closed the doors behind him, but they flew right open.

"I immediately felt faint because I thought Herc was coming through the doors," Froelich recalled in a written account of the event for zoo officials. "I almost passed out. I then realized that the right door latches weren't locked, so I re-closed the doors, latching the right door first then locking the left door."

The tech room had glass windows, and Froelich wanted to find someplace safer. He stopped to peer out the windows to see whether he could spot McClurg, then bolted into an all-brick bathroom off the tech room. On the way he grabbed a two-way radio.

Once safely inside the bathroom, Froelich tried to reach McClurg on her radio. When he got no response, he called mammal supervisor Linda King. "An animal's loose in the gorilla building!" Froelich yelled. After determining which animal was loose and that McClurg's whereabouts were unknown, King called the front office and issued a Code Red, which signifies a life-threatening danger from an escaped animal.

For the next 15 to 25 terrifying minutes, depending on whose account you believe, Froelich remained locked in the bathroom, McClurg fought for her life, and the zoo's top brass tried to figure out how to rescue them both and subdue Hercules.

Froelich could not see anything, but he could hear objects being thrown about the building. And he could hear repeated, ear-piercing screams coming from Jennifer McClurg.

When a Code Red is issued at the zoo, well-defined procedures are supposed to be followed, as outlined in the zoo's emergency guidelines. Several high-ranking employees at the zoo are designated emergency response leaders, and the senior one of them on duty when a crisis occurs immediately takes charge. Everyone around the zoo has an assigned role or area of responsibility in an emergency. Supervisors are supposed to periodically review these procedures with staff.

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